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A vision for the future of GDS

2018-02-27 15:20:20 +0000

There’s been a lot written about the death of GDS or the decline of GDS, but very little of it seem to be articulate what GDS should stand for, what it should be doing and how it should go about it.

This is my view, on what I would outline to the Management Team, to the leadership teams, and to the organisation if I were in charge.

It is naturally, my personal view, and probably limited based on my experience of government, of politics and the people involved.

The vision for GDS.

The Martha Lane-Fox report outlined the original vision as being (paraphrased):

  • Form a central body of expertise in the center
  • Deliver publishing
  • Transform services
  • Go wholesale

This aim was based on reversing decades of outsourcing and braindrain that left departments unable to act as smart customers to their IT suppliers. It addressed the fact that citizens view of government was not of 25 ministerial departments and 300+ services or ALB’s, each publishing their own way, but that people consider the Government as one organisation that should publish with one voice.

It addressed the fact that when it comes to interacting with government, people do interact with parts of it, and they tend to do so under duress, with the worst experiences life can throw at them. That services must be better and user focused to help citizens transact with government during that time.

And the wholesale recognised that one team in the center cannot do everything, cannot possibly build everything for everyone, but has to focus on enabling the rest of government to do stuff well.

The Civil Service Transformation, of which GDS is a part, outlines 3 key visions for the new modern civil service.


  • How we work
  • Where we work
  • The expertise we bring to bear on our work

The key to a good vision for an organisation like GDS is that it has to be inspirational, it has to be something that people can get behind, but it also has to be deliverable and measurable. We have to be able to feel like it’s a moon shot, but that we can determine how we are doing and be held account or hold our leaders to account if we aren’t getting there.

Additionally, I think that Martha’s vision for GDS represented addressing the Government and organisation of the time. It’s ok to want to evolve and change that vision, and to re-evaluate the principles behind it. I therefore think that a new vision is needed, that can be as clearly articulated, discussed and debated.

To this end, I suggest that GDS’s vision needs to be:

  • Build and maintain operational services at the centre
  • Support transformation in government
  • Develop capability across government
  • Coordinate standards and cooperation across Government

Build and maintain operational services at the centre

Some services are so fundamentally about Government that they don’t fit in a single department. Somebody once described the Cabinet Office to me as the department that governs Government itself. So if DWP is concentrating on enabling citizens to work and live, and HMRC is concentrating on enabling the correct administration of taxes for citizens, the Cabinet Office is concentrating on ensuring that people in those departments can do that work.

But it’s also about owning and managing parts of the government brand that don’t fit elsewhere. The reason that GOV.UK, GOV.UK Verify and other products work is because they aren’t associated with a department. They are about the fundamental machinery of government itself, of representing the center to the citizen. And they do that via federating the work, such as content editing, out to departments, but unifying them under a single standard, a single common domain and a single common brand.

GDS needs to continue to run and operate central services where it makes sense, operating that service as a single brand, on behalf of all the departments.

Support transformation in Government

GDS is not generally in the business of dealing with citizens in transactions, the departments are. They know their lines of business and they should understand their users better than GDS does.

What GDS is exceedingly good at is doing user research, developing bespoke technical solutions and understanding IT projects. It also benefits from being at the center and understanding the wider moves and changes across the whole of the Government sector.

It needs to get back into the “consulting” model, into enabling, transforming and supporting government departments.

Back when GDS did this before, it was essentially something that was done to departments. Some departments were glad to have GDS support and recognised the value, but many were resistant, and didn’t understand why this was happening, or why GDS was doing it. This meant that the work had to be directed from the center, from the government transformation programme , that it had to be push, not pull.

Today, all the operational departments have digital transformation programs of their own, and most of the other departments are getting on with digital transformation, with or without GDS help.

GDS needs to operate a central resource of people, knowledge and services that any government department can call upon, and know that the skills will be exemplary. Departments need to trust that GDS isn’t pushing a vision of digital onto them, or trying to steal power to the center, but is committed to helping departments transform to meet challenges like Brexit.

Projects supported like this need to be onboarded onto the transformation platform well, and need to have clear outcomes and offboarding. This isn’t about GDS backfilling departments with technical staff so they don’t need to hire their own, nor about saving costs within the department. Engagements need to be strategic, and capability building.

GDS needs to articulate the offering to departments, and GDS via its central spend controls and governance functions should encourage departments to use this capability. But it needs to not be enforced. With the challenges in digital transformation across the sector, there shouldn’t be any need for it.

Develop capability across government

GDS gathered together people from across Government who were excited about the possibilities that technology opened up. It gathered existing civil servants and equipped and enabled them.

GDS did this because it was able to attract the right kind of talent from outside and merge it successfully with civil servants.

However, GDS always struggled with the fact that the strategy was delivery, that delivery trumped capability building, and because it needed to move fast to prove that what it wanted to do was possible.

I believe that GDS has achieved that aim, it has proven that it is possible to employ good technologists, to give them good technology and freedom in practice, and to get good results.

The departments have built up their own centres of capability, from HMRC’s center in Newcastle to DWP’s digital delivery teams to DfE, DEFRA, BEIS. The list goes on, and that’s a good thing.

GDS needs to focus on continuing to build capability across Government. It needs to drive improvements in project management, engineering management, career development and training offering.

GDS needs to enable departments to work together to recruit, remunerate, retain and rear technologists, to build a coherent and consistent career offering for technologists across Government

Additionally, it needs to offer training, guidance and offerings for staff who manage or work with technologists, ensuring that departmental strategists understand how to use them best, ensuring that policy staff can engage and involve them, and ensuring that management disciplines and HR offerings are suitable and appropriate.

GDS would need to work with other capability developing functions, in particular the governmental commercial function, run out of Crown Commercial Services, has a significant impact on how digital teams and technologies can be employed across Government. GDS needs to ensure that the procurement processes are fit for purpose, that they are evolving along with digital strategies, and that the commercial function has access to people with technical skills to assess and improve

Coordinate standards and cooperation across Government

If we accept the premise that departmental silos are the closest to the coal face of delivery and the best place to build digital services that help citizens and civil servants, we also need to acknowledge that many at that coal face will struggle to see the wood for the trees.

When a department is focused on delivering a solution for citizens in their area, it is incredibly difficult for them to lift their head out of the immediate focus and look to see if the problem they are solving is created by the siloised nature of Government.

GDS and the center is uniquely positioned to understand the entire fabric of Government, and how disparate engineering efforts in different departments could benefit from “synergy” or from simple communication and awareness.

Additionally, delivery teams rightly focus on solving the problem in front of them. Their managers and people justifying the cost often tout standards and reuse as the reason for the escalating costs of delivery projects, but rarely is there any thought to how reuse will be achieved, or effort put into the engagement, involvement or management of that reuse.

GDS should be a hub at the center of Government. Aware of all major delivery projects, and present on Governance boards and getting updates. That information should be centralised and shared, enabling Government to see where reuse can be achieved, and to independently advise other departments on whether reuse would be better for them, or where claims of reuse wont work.

GDS needs to head up the centralised standardisation effort, understanding how data is reused across Government, how it can be shared with minimum of effort, and with maximisation of privacy and data sharing safeguards. It can identify where common standards should be adopted, and where current standards slow down or inhibit delivery.

GDS needs to bring together the technology and digital leaders on a regular basis, and ensure that they can discuss the vision for digital government, ensure that the vision is co-created and supported by the departments, and that the vision supports the needs of citizens for a brilliant civil service which serves citizens from birth until death.